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Comparing BeReal to Instagram is missing the point

It’s more like Wordle, which creates a daily online ritual

A screenshot of a push notification from BeReal, prompting the user “Time to BeReal.” Photo: Polygon

A college professor I know was recently on a school trip to Rome. He and his group of students would be out eating dinner together when suddenly the conversation would die down, and the students would all pull out their phones and snap a photo. He quickly figured out that the students were all receiving a notification from the photo-sharing app BeReal at the same time.

Chances are, if you’ve read about BeReal, it’s because it’s being heralded as the photo app that could soon dethrone Instagram. The Independent, Bloomberg, the Los Angeles Times, and Ad Age have all published stories within the past month declaring BeReal the “anti-Instagram.” But to reduce BeReal’s popularity to an Instagram replacement is to miss the whole point of why it’s growing so quickly. It’s not the act of sharing a photo that’s important; it’s the synchronicity and the fact it’s largely private. A better comparison would be Wordle, the mega viral word game that you can only play once a day. Both apps deploy a simple daily prompt to build a little online ritual you can talk about with your friends. And both apps are also part of a massive shift in the way we use the internet.

During the peak of millennial social media use, people were following anyone on huge public social platforms like Twitter and Instagram. But newer apps rising to the top of the app store, like BeReal, tend to emphasize more private online connections that help young people find intimate shared digital experiences in a fractured online world. The success of BeReal — with almost 3 million daily active users as of April — is a sign that a more personal internet is coming, whether Silicon Valley is ready for it or not.

“It’s like humane tech. [BeReal] attempts to free us from what we’re trying to get away from, yet they still are able to hook in many ways. I think it’s refreshing and ironic,” said Matt Klein, a cultural theorist and brand consultant who has previously written about BeReal.

According to Klein, BeReal frees users from the pressure they might feel on larger social platforms. With BeReal, you get a push alert at a certain time of day — it’s random and it varies — and you’re given a short time frame of two minutes to take a photo with both of your phone’s cameras simultaneously. The app locks others’ BeReal posts behind a wall until you take that day’s photo, so you can’t aimlessly scroll without also participating. It’s compelling and weird and makes you feel just a bit like a lab rat being beckoned by some mysterious overlord with a piece of cheese. But that simple premise has proved hugely popular.

A screenshot from BeReal with a blurred out “hidden content” obscuring the image. Image: BeReal via Polygon

The app, which was launched in 2019 by Alexis Barreyat, a former GoPro employee, floated around the periphery of social media until this spring, when it exploded in popularity. According to Apptopia, its user base has grown over 300% since last year.

“It’s about being here together now, back on the same page,” Klein said. “Algorithms, in the longtail, have provided for us in some great ways, and in some not great ways. They’ve helped us find our niche. I think there’s a longing to come back together again, an excuse to be back on the same page.”

The last decade of social media seemed focused on connection above all else. In 2012, Facebook’s marketing materials bragged that the platform amounted for 95% of all social media use in the U.S. And then, in 2014, the company’s founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that the company’s new mission statement was aiming even higher. Facebook wanted to “connect the world.”

But it wasn’t just Facebook that aimed to connect every internet user on the planet during the 2010s. Nudged along by venture capital and demanding expectations from advertisers, viral scale was deemed more important than anything else. Platforms like YouTube, Twitter, and Reddit tweaked and refined algorithms that could surface more and more viral content, first beaming into our desktops, and then into the smartphones in our pockets. And for a while this was fine. It meant that a new “Gangnam Style” or Grumpy Cat or Ice Bucket Challenge appeared out of the digital ether every day. Pop culture was increasingly determined by numbers cascading upward on computer screens around the world.

But in the second half of the last decade, whether it was due to increased polarization caused by those same trending algorithms or just simply a generational shift, internet behavior started to drift away from an endless feed of water cooler moments and toward a fractured online landscape. The internet became dominated by filter bubbles and peer-to-peer sharing across messaging apps and email, something often referred to as dark social. And, by all accounts, the COVID-19 pandemic supercharged all of this. Remote work, Zoom parties, family group chats — it has all led to an online landscape in 2022 where no one can really follow what’s happening in mainstream culture anymore. Everyone’s getting an increasingly different experience of the internet.

But now, young internet users are trying to figure out how to bring back shared online experiences, but in a more private, manageable — and probably healthier — way. This is a key reason why TikTok has become the defining app for Gen Z. It’s algorithmic, of course, but it’s also deeply personalized.

“Instagram has had all these updates recently that I kind of don’t like. It’s weird with the algorithm and it puts a bunch of content [in your feed] that is not your friends. It’s recommended and stuff. So, I guess, now BeReal is sort of a way to see what your friends are doing,” Kristin Merrilees, an internet culture writer and current student at Barnard College told Polygon.

If you’ve never opened up BeReal, it’s actually a pretty sparse app. And making an account is surprisingly retro. Most American adults are probably not starting from square one on new social platforms these days. Chances are your Twitter or Instagram (or Facebook, I guess) has a core group of accounts you’ve been following since college and maybe some users come and go, but you probably aren’t starting with a blank slate very often. Starting an account on BeReal gives you the option to add friends who you already know are on the app, or find people on your phone’s contact list. It means most of the people you end up following are probably people you already know in real life.

“I do think that there’s sort of a dissatisfaction with, I guess you could say, national social media like Instagram that I think gives [BeReal] more of an appeal,” Merrilees said.

She added that the internet right now is chaotic and hard to follow, so people are seeking out apps that cut through the noise or just focus on specific moments.

“There’s so much stuff online,” she said. “There’s so many different parts of the internet that you can be on. It feels really almost like we’re uniting when there’s, say, Wordle or — I was thinking about this. Even though people have their gripes with Twitter, I think that’s one of the reasons why Twitter is possibly so appealing. When something is popular, or trending on Twitter, everyone’s talking about it. Someone can make a tweet and you know what they’re talking about. It kind of feels like they were in on an inside joke. Like you’re in on these shared references.”

Users aren’t really able to re-create an Instagram-like experience on BeReal. The app has a Discovery tab, with a feed of geotagged photos from users you don’t follow, but no one I spoke to while reporting on this piece said they ever checked it. When you’re only given two minutes to snap a photo at a random time of the day, there’s not really a good opportunity to do anything particularly interesting. And, so, why would you follow strangers?

Though, when you do come across something particularly glamorous on BeReal, as a BuzzFeed News story in April pointed out, it can have an even more toxic effect on a user’s self-esteem. How was that user able to look so cool or interesting in the same two minutes I looked like a schlub? Is their life really that much more exciting than mine?

“To me, BeReal is more about connecting with friends than seeing random people, where apps like TikTok and Instagram are better for sustaining connections between random people, possibly because of the algorithms they use,” Alexis Friedman, a student at Hofstra University, told Polygon. “I’m not as interested in [the Discovery tab] because I don’t know the people that it shows me.”

Friedman was on the BeReal-disrupted school trip to Rome mentioned above. “I do think that the shared experience of having it, especially during the Italy trip, made the app more fun, but also the spontaneity of it is very fun too.”

While influencers are still trying to figure out exactly how to be glamorous and aspirational with two minutes’ notice, brands have come up with a different tactic for jumping on the hype train. Amazon Prime is photoshopping characters from their shows into BeReal posts for their Twitter account. And Friedman said that she’s seen hard seltzer companies like Simply Spiked Lemonade using the BeReal template for posts on Instagram.

In The Verge, journalist Casey Newton made the argument that rather than some kind of revolution in social technology, BeReal more closely resembles many of the flash-in-the-pan apps that briefly flicked to the top of the app store, only to be never heard from again — Ello, Peach, Vero, etc. “Even if BeReal succeeds, it’s easy to imagine Instagram, Snapchat, and others cloning its core mechanic with ease,” Newton concluded.

This is something Friedman mentioned as well. BeReal clones are abundant right now. “There’s already one I’ve seen via Twitter and TikTok called ‘bopdrop’ that is BeReal but for music and not photos,” she said.

And it’s a fair point to consider. Instagram could easily pull in BeReal’s defining features — in fact, Instagram just announced a new feature called “Dual” that takes a photo from both of your phone’s cameras at the same time. It’s not hard to imagine Instagram at some point in the near future sending you a push alert, warning you that you have two minutes to take a dual-camera photo. Once you took your photo, Instagram would unlock a new feed of other users’ spontaneous selfies. But in doing so, Instagram would only be capturing one half of BeReal’s appeal.

The other half of the equation, one that would be much harder for Instagram to solve, is simply that BeReal isn’t Instagram. And no amount of spontaneous selfies will ever solve that.

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